Imagine searching for that perfect Christmas present for your child, the one he’s been pining after for months. It’s so popular that other parents with more time to shop have snapped up most of the inventory. As supply dwindles and demand spikes, you know it’ll cost you.
As candidates and their strategists budget for next year’s elections, many are beginning to realize they will fall into that “Tickle Me Elmo” situation. The battle for the White House and control of Congress will take place not on a national landscape but in a much narrower set of key media markets. And in those markets, the inventory of television time in which to advertise will become a premium product.
“You have more money on television, you have more advertisers, you haven’t really seen any shift in geography, and traditional media inventory is not growing at all,” said Paul Winn, a Republican media buyer at Smart Media Group. “So supply and demand is just going to tell you what’s going to happen.”
Both parties agree there are about 13 presidential swing states, give or take. In 10 of those states, competitive Senate seats are also up for grabs; Indiana and North Carolina feature governor’s races; and in all 13 both parties will battle for at least one toss-up House seat—and as many as five, in the case of Pennsylvania.
That means in key markets as many as two dozen organizations will be vying for air time in the frenzied run-up to next year’s elections. Among candidates, party committees, and outside organizations, the extremely limited television inventory in these markets will go fast:
President Obama won Nevada by 12 points in 2008, but it will be closer this time. Democrats see the senate battle between Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley as one of their best pickup opportunities; redistricting and reapportionment puts three southern Nevada seats in play, two of which will be at least somewhat competitive. (The third is a safe Democratic, but open, seat.)
The Las Vegas market reaches more than two-thirds of the state’s population even though it covers just Clark, Lincoln, and Nye counties. In 2010, candidates expected to pay about $125 per gross ratings point in that year’s hotly contested Senate election. Instead, the limited supply of inventory forced campaigns to shell out about $185 per point, and outside groups were paying more than $350 a point in the final weeks of the race. That means a campaign’s budget went only two-thirds as far as expected, the equivalent of instant 33 percent inflation.
Florida’s I-4 corridor, which runs from Tampa to the Space Coast, is home to the swing voters who decide the Sunshine State’s elections. Anyone watching local news at Disney World next October will also see Senate ads being run by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson (he already has more than $7.5 million in the bank) and his eventual Republican opponent, along with candidates on both sides fighting over at least three congressional seats, the district lines of which have yet to be drawn.
The Orlando market stretches along the Space Coast from Melbourne to Daytona Beach west through Orlando to Marion, Sumter, and Osceola counties. Last year, candidates paid $400 per point, making it pricey. Ad buyers expect that to shoot north of $800 given the importance of the region and its plethora of swing voters.
There is no path to 270 electoral votes for Republicans without the 15 that come from North Carolina. To win, the GOP must perform well in a media market Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., won in 2008 by a scant 5-point margin. Obama’s team will hold its convention in Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena. Both sides will spend heavily for Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue and likely Republican challenger Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, in a year in which few governor’s races are competitive.
Democratic Reps. Larry Kissell and Heath Shuler will defend themselves from strong Republican challengers in the Charlotte market, which stretches from the South Carolina border north to the Tennessee/Virginia border. But because Charlotte is so crucial to the national presidential contest, observers expect outside groups to pay up to $800 per point here, more than double the price in past cycles.
Even jaded Beltway denizens in Virginia and Maryland may get sick of next year’s advertising onslaught. Turning out Democratic voters is key to both Obama’s chances and former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine’s hopes at winning a Senate seat. Republicans are successful when, like Gov. Bob McDonnell, they win in areas such as Virginia’s Fauquier and Loudoun counties.
Democrats are fighting to win over Rep. Roscoe Bartlett’s seat in eastern Maryland, and Republicans may target Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly in Fairfax and Prince William counties once the redistricting process ends. The combination of a huge Senate race, 13 critical electoral votes, and few toss-up House races could mean candidates and outside groups find their budgets won’t accommodate the price tags D.C. television stations insist upon next year.
Cincinnati voters tend toward Republicans. Cleveland voters tilt Democratic. If a candidate needs to swing an area to win Ohio, it’s the Columbus market, which stretches from southern Pike County through populous Franklin County to northern Crawford County. Then-Vice President Al Gore won 43 percent in the market’s 21 counties in 2000; Obama won 51.8 percent in 2008.
Columbus is going to play a big role in the battle for the Senate as well. Sen. Sherrod Brown and his Republican rival, state Treasurer Josh Mandel, are on pace to break fundraising records. Redistricting will reshape several Columbus-area lines, which could make those areas competitive.
The trouble budget planners face in these five key markets is that prices are likely to skyrocket—and fast. A campaign or an outside group could suddenly find ad rates so costly they’re not able to wield the influence they had hoped. Buy early, while supplies last.
This article appears in the Nov. 23, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.